Christian Porter loses appeal over barrister in ABC defamation case

Former Commonwealth attorney-general Christian Porter is facing a legal bill in the hundreds of thousands of dollars after losing an appeal against a Federal Court decision that blocked a Sydney barrister from acting for him in his since-settled defamation case against the ABC.

Federal Court Justice Tom Thawley ordered last year that prominent silk Sue Chrysanthou, SC, could not act for Porter in his lawsuit against the national broadcaster because she had previously acted for a potential witness in the case.

Christian Porter, Sue Chrysanthou, SC, Jo Dyer.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen, Kate Geraghty, Wolter Peeters

He ordered Porter and Chrysanthou to pay the legal costs of the potential witness, Jo Dyer, who brought the application to restrain Chrysanthou from acting in the proceedings.

Thawley said it was necessary to restrain Chrysanthou from acting for Porter to prevent the potential misuse of confidential information and to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.

Dyer, a friend of the woman who accused Porter of raping her when they were both teenagers, had sought the court order on the basis that Chrysanthou previously advised her in relation to an article in The Australian that was published after Dyer appeared in an ABC Four Corners broadcast in November 2020 about Porter and others.

Porter has strenuously denied the rape accusation. The woman took her own life in 2020.

The Federal Court heard last year that Chrysanthou gave free advice to Dyer, a potential witness for the ABC in the defamation proceedings, from November 2020 as a favour to another defamation barrister.

Thawley said Chrysanthou continued to represent Dyer’s interests at least into February last year and accepted the brief to act for Porter on March 10.

The parties disagreed about whether confidential information was imparted to Chrysanthou at a November 20 meeting with Dyer, which was also attended by senior Macquarie banker James Hooke, a former boyfriend of the woman who accused Porter of raping her in the late 1980s.

Thawley concluded Chrysanthou was given confidential information, and there was a danger it could be misused. He said Chrysanthou should be restrained from acting for Porter and subsequently ruled that Porter and Chrysanthou should pay Dyer’s legal costs, which were estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Porter and Chrysanthou filed an appeal and a cross-appeal respectively. The Full Court of the Federal Court – Justices Anthony Besanko, Michael Lee and Wendy Abraham – dismissed both on Thursday. Reasons for their decision have not yet been released publicly.

Porter agreed in May last year to settle his high-stakes defamation case against the ABC, and filed an official notice of discontinuance in August.

Porter had alleged an online article published by the ABC in February last year defamed him in a number of ways, including by suggesting he “brutally raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988”, when he was 17, and that this contributed to her taking her own life in 2020, after she told NSW Police that she did not wish to pursue her complaint.

In an editor’s note on the story, which was published pursuant to the settlement, the ABC says the article was “about a letter to the Prime Minister containing allegations against a senior cabinet minister” and the article was about Mr Porter, although he was not named.

The note says the ABC “did not intend to suggest that Mr Porter had committed the criminal offences alleged” and “did not contend that the serious accusations could be substantiated to the applicable legal standard – criminal or civil”.

But it added that “both parties accept that some readers misinterpreted the article as an accusation of guilt against Mr Porter. That reading, which was not intended by the ABC, is regretted.”

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